Spring Cleaning for Writers

My kitchen counters are cluttered with the contents of my pantry. This is good news for a couple reasons. One ~ If I’m cleaning, I must be over the flu that hit our house just before the holiday weekend. Two ~ If I’m ready to tackle my pantry, my WIP revision will be a piece of cake.

Not that I’m eating cake. The flu helped me get through a week without sugar. I must continue to resist sweets if I want my blood sugar results to come back clean at end of June. I want to stay off diabetes medication. I fear it may be too little too late, nevertheless I will abide by these new rules my body demands. I need to be healthy as possible to write this book.

I had flu, but I wrote anyway. It feels as if I am rewriting the book from scratch, that’s how much this second draft is changing. But in truth, I’m only rearranging the words on the pages like food on my pantry shelves. I’m getting rid of expired items and building a new and better structure to support the parts I keep.

My house, my health and my book are coming together. It’s springtime and my worlds, both fictive and real, are beginning to bloom.

My Revision Process

Organizing Revision

I write a first draft with no revision. Just flat out write it. I finished my current WIP “Jane” in November 2018. Then it was Christmas. Then I went to Florida for six weeks. During this time I kept pulling chapters to feed to my critique group, even though they were first draft. I would not recommend that. By the time I settled back into my writing routine, months had gone by and I had a big mess of a manuscript with many many suggestions for improvement on the first five chapters from my writing group.

After writing an unfiltered and thus awful first draft, I like to let it sit for a bit and simmer. I left it a little too long this time and showed it too soon and the result was a mess. But I knew my next step. I like to read the entire book in a day (or two) making brief revision notes as I go. Before I could do the read-through, I had to organize those first five chapters and get things coherent. So I did a little more than the usual. I went over the five chapters, incorporating suggestions I liked. I outlined every scene, and made a summary for my critique partners, because we only meet once a month, plus the six week break was in there and people forget.

It took a few days just to get that first chunk in order, but I’m happy I did it instead of just reverting to the uncritiqued original. I also liked outlining the scenes. I felt organized enough to go ahead and read the rest of the book. It took two days, not one, but the thing is to have my whole book in my head. The entire plot needs to be clear to me so I can figure out what went wrong, how to fix it, and where in the manuscript those fixes need to be inserted.

I didn’t outline the rest of the manuscript when I did the read-through. I did make brief notes to myself about the changes I wanted to make. I knew I had a crap bad guy so I was able to come up with a semi-solution for that and I even figured out the final twist at the end. Mystery novels often have a sting in the tail that is the final surprising twist. I got that in the read through, surprising even myself, because I usually struggle with that. Jane the book and Jane the character both need more work, the crime story itself needs some work, but that’s fine because now I will go back and outline the entire book and find those places where I need to up the stakes, delete the nonsense (an entire character this time) and fill out Jane. At this point, I also revise the character list of names and places.

The other problem I’ve been thinking about is that the book is in first person point of view (Jane’s). But two random chapters are in other voices. I contemplated changing the whole thing to third person and adding other points of view, but then decided to keep it in first person and try to figure out how to do those other pov chapters later. Not sure I’ve ever told an entire book from one first person point of view. But it feels right this time. So much of revising is just hearing the click in your head that signals “yes, this.”

After I outline everything, I look at the structure and make sure my turning points, my big moments, are in the most effective places. Jenny Crusie taught me about turning points. (And so much more). She has an entire blog about writing and revising a novel. It’s extremely helpful. I always go looking for Jenny when I am in revision mode because she always has the exact answer I need, even when I didn’t know I needed it.

All that done, I read the book again. I add the scenes I didn’t write but that need to be in the story. I add dimension to characters who lack it (Jane needs a bit of help and my bad guy needs a lot). Then I read the book again to make sure everything tracks. At this point, I do a timeline. It starts when the book starts and ends when the book ends. I buy a calendar with big blank squares as they are dirt cheap right now. After I do all that, I read the book again to make sure the added scenes flow, that Jane is as heroically flawed as I can make her and that my bad guy is terrifying. I’ll have to add things and take stuff out. When I’m happy, I’ll do one more read through. (Ha.)

I polish sloppy sentences and look for inconsistencies. An example of an inconsistency is Jane has two grown children. She’s also a granny. (I was scared to write a granny as a main character in a crime novel but then I decided to do it because I wish more crime novels had aging female characters who have actual families. Also I like writing what scares me. “Too scary” is like a clue to the writer that you are on the right track.) So inconsistencies. My example: Jane’s kids and their families live on different coasts. Every time I mention a family member of one or the other I have to make sure they’re in the right city. This is one reason why annotated character lists are helpful.

After all that I am pretty sick of my book. I love it but I need to let it sit and rest for a week or so. Then I read it again and hope I don’t have to use my pen. Most of the time I do find more things to fix. When I start taking out commas that I put in on the previous edit, I know I’m done. Then I mail it to my editor and she and I go through a few more edits together. I hope I am lucky enough to have the same editor I’ve had for the last several books, because I have gotten good at anticipating what she’ll have problems with, and she’s always right.

If there’s a way to not be messy in revision, I have not found it. The most difficult thing is to dive in when it’s just chaos in a stack of paper. It feels good when I tame all that down to pretty folders for research, old drafts, current pages, critique group, to-be-revised and my favorite, finished chapters. I have a free download of my writing manual on the landing page here. I used it for my students when I taught creative writing. There’s a chapter on revision. I should probably read that myself.

Revision & Research

 

My favorite part of writing is the first draft. It’s like flying on a magic carpet inside my mind. I do not bring my inner critic along. I know she’ll be back for revision, when I need her. I finished that fun first draft in November. December I took a month off to enjoy the holidays. It’s difficult to be a friend when I’m in writer mode. My closest friends understand, but many people don’t get why I am out of touch. Here’s why: I shut myself off for hours every day and come out exhausted, my mind spent. I can do mindless things like cook dinner, sip a glass of wine, and maybe watch an episode Madam Secretary. But I do need time for the magic carpet to land before I’m worth much more than that. Lucky for me, my husband understands.

In November, I saw very few of my friends, as I worked to finish a first draft of new novel. I did take Thanksgiving Day off, but I worked harder than usual the rest of the month. It’s joyful work. I really love that first draft where a story unfolds itself onto the screen from my willing fingers dancing on the keyboard. It’s a party for one, that first draft. But, like all parties, it leaves a bit of a mess to clean up. In December I avoided my messy first draft and saw all my friends, some more than once. I went out to dinner, to parties, to lunch. I shopped and gabbed on the phone. I was the social version of Cindy. I didn’t miss writing because I still got up every day and wrote morning pages which is pen to paper and a habit I love. I do those pages while having tea. It’s a wake up ritual where I sometimes plan my day, sometimes complain, sometimes make a gratitude list. 

Come January, I was ready to revise. I take revision in steps. First there’s the big picture. Is my plot tight with just the right amount of digression to make it quirky but not too much to bog it down? Are my characters fully realized? Is there conflict? Does my murderer have motivation, means and opportunity? Do a few other characters have some of that too? Are any important characters stereotypes without their own personality and flair? Yes to all the above. It happens every time. That’s okay. I figure out which characters need work and the rest of it, too. 

With bad guys, they need to be really bad and their motivation has to be more than “he’s a psyco” ~ Motivation needs to be personal and complicated, like people are complicated. Murder is seldom random. Seldom committed by a stranger to the victim. It happens. But not in my books. I want the killer there in the midst of the characters, hiding in plain sight. The other thing I do with my murderer is write his story of “why” and “how” in his own words. That doesn’t show up in the book, but it helps make the book better, just because I know exactly what the killer knows. I like research, so I bought a few books to help me with the two characters I knew needed work in the new book. The first was my villain who really is not “superbad” as he needs to be. So Sasha Black, I’m counting on you to clue me in.

img_5102The second character I knew I’d glossed over because the reader only sees her once. She’s an FBI agent involved with a main character and I kind of wanted to keep her hidden because I did so much research on police detectives and procedures plus everything about being a PI in my last novel. So I felt like hell no I don’t want to research the FBI. But really I couldn’t have the book I wanted without doing the work. I didn’t have an easy time tracking down any FBI books. I was ready for FBI for Dummies but found this instead. I’ll be reading both of these books and fleshing out these characters as the next step in my revision process.

Funny how a first draft flies for me. I can literally write one in a month. But it takes a year or more to revise that first draft. That wonderfully chaotic and rushing world will change, gain depth, but still keeps its boyant fervor. First drafts take a month, finished drafts take a year. Or more. I love every single part of the process. Even fully rounding a previously flat FBI agent.  

White Girl, Black City

My current WIP is set in Detroit. It’s a murder mystery but it’s also a fish-out-of-water story about a white girl who lands in a black city. I write from the pov of the white girl, and as a white writer who found herself in a black environment when I attended a small private college in Detroit in the 80s, I have direct experience with that fish-out-of-water theme.

I’ve written successfully about being white in a black city before. At school, I won a fiction competition for “Cherry Vanilla” a short story I wrote about a white college girl who dates a black college boy, and the repercussions it has on her family–and his.  I didn’t want to ignore the race issue, but I didn’t want to “write about race” either. So I just focused on what I knew about–being a fish-out-of-water. I didn’t insert racism as a theme, I just showed the way people in my  real world behaved.

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The judges for the competition were our professors. The cash prize was a fat check and other accolades (publication in the college’s literary journal, a personal meeting with the famous author on campus that semester, special guest status at the banquet in her honor) came with the prize. There were four judges: two white women, a white man, and a black woman. The majority of the prof/judges were white, which was a problem even then for a lot of people at the college, particularly the black profs. It wasn’t right, they said, to have a majority of black students and so few black educators.

After the story was published, some of my African-American classmates said I should not have won the competition. They liked the second place story better, also published in the college journal, and written by a black woman. I’d only won top prize because I was white, they said, even though the stories were all submitted anonymously. At the time, I put the black students’ rancor down to sour grapes.

But what if it wasn’t that simple? But what if my three white professors related more to my character because, like her, they were also white in a predominantly black milieu?  What if the lone black professor/judge felt a subtle pressure to agree with her white colleagues? Or what if she dissented, even then? I never considered these things at the time, but the truth is I need to consider these kinds of questions now.

And not about the past, which is gone, but about my current work-in-progress and its particular need to look past easy answers and stereotypes, both white and black.

 

 

Secrets & Passions

Scorpio Full Moon this weekend is complicated by several planet retrogrades, some already here, others moving into retrograde within the week. What this means to me, to everyone really, is that it is time to take the passionate engagement, even the fiery argument, inside. We would all do well to take a look at our unconscious motivations and deeper longings, the ones we keep hidden, even from ourselves.

This plays in several areas of my life right now, and of course, yours too. What did you start at the new moon? What ended, and for good? Well, I had one big ending, as I discussed last post. It was pretty public, well, I made it so, as did the rock band next door. Now, with the retrogrades, it’s time to focus that passion and energy inward. So you caused a ruckus with the new moon ending…it’s time to silently contemplate how those endings are helping you with new beginnings.

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I made inroads in several areas with the new moon energy. Most dramatically with writing. My creativity burst out in a totally different kind of novel, not something I’ve ever attempted before. I was shockingly pleased with the result. We’ll see what those New York editors think about it. Meanwhile, not just writing got a make over with the new moon. I ended my rigid diet program–it was just not working. Instead, I recommitted to meditation, determined to eat more mindfully, and promised myself I would actually pop that walking video in and even use it a few times a week.

All of that, and more, started out well, but when my inner and outer worlds collided in the most rude way (new moon energy isn’t always nice) everything took a nosedive, including my heath. Nothing serious just ongoing issues with my back–I need to walk!– and migraine–I need to meditate and not stress so much.

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I can make this Scorpio Full Moon with mega-retrograde work for me by taking a step inward. Not backward, but inward, recommitting to everything I’ve started with the Aries new moon. For writing that always means it’s a time to revise, and just as important, a time to back up the writing. I’m pulling out my external hard drive for the duration of the retrogrades.

And I’ll be keeping my secrets and passions to myself for a change. The whole world doesn’t need to know every bit of it all the time.